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Old Dog With New Tricks
Jim Kaplan
August 23, 1982
Luke Appling, the Braves' 75-year-old minor league batting coach, sure practiced what he preaches when he hit that big homer
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August 23, 1982

Old Dog With New Tricks

Luke Appling, the Braves' 75-year-old minor league batting coach, sure practiced what he preaches when he hit that big homer

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When Appling's wife, Fay, to whom he's been married 50 years, isn't traveling with him—their home is on Lake Lanier in Georgia—he'll be at the Anderson ball park in the morning, helping the trainer with the team laundry. This time Fay was along and Luke took it easy. But not for long. Bill MacKay, the 26-year-old general manager of the Anderson Braves, had asked Appling to call on a hospitalized friend. "Bleep," Appling said cheerfully, "let's go see him." Dressed in black tassled loafers, gray and white checked, beltless slacks and an alligator shirt with a cigar wedged between the first and second buttons, Luke stood for an hour in Anderson Memorial Hospital chatting with Olin Saylors, a onetime shortstop in the Braves system who was recovering from a hernia operation.

"They used to call me Old Aches and Pains," Appling said later. "You know how that story got started? I hung out with Ab Schacht, the White Sox trainer. We roomed together, ate meals together and went out to the park early together. By the time the other players and the reporters got there, he'd always be giving me a rubdown." Appling was considered a hypochondriac, but he played with fallen arches, broken bones, torn muscles and spike wounds, and still appeared in 2,422 games. When Saylors recounted how he'd taped a broken ankle and played on it, Appling smiled approvingly. "Any good athlete plays better when he's a little injured because he concentrates harder," he said.

A few hours later Appling stood in the hot sun in knickers and sweats with an Anderson Braves cap on his head, watching batting practice at Anderson Memorial Stadium. The place will never be mistaken for a major league park. It seats 4,000, and the sound of buzzsaws—new benches were being built—rang through the afternoon air. The scoreboard is donated by Legion Post No. 14, the outfield fence is covered with local advertisements (Gable's Florist, Maynard's Home Furnishing, Country Club Apartments) and there's a vegetable garden outside the clubhouse. Nor will the Anderson Braves be mistaken for the parent club. Hailing from Maine to California and ranging in age from 18 to 23, the hopeful, hardworking kids make an average of $600 a month, share tacky apartments, dine on tacos and cheeseburgers and frequent Anderson's few bars. This is the society Luke Appling hangs out in—and he loves it.

Standing behind the cage, chaw in cheek ("Gives you all the moisture you need"), Appling alternately called out advice to the hitters and chatted with an onlooker. He's an indefatigable, nonstop talker who will answer all your questions—if you can get them in.

"Hey," he shouted to a burly catcher. "If you carry your hands higher, it'll make a difference. Never raise up. Keep that front shoulder down and drive your shoulder into the ball. Don't follow the ball; look for it in the strike zone. If you have to raise up, take the pitch.

"What you want them to do," he said in an aside, "is handle the bat, get it out in front of the pitch and get a bat with balance that you can feel. These kids can't feel the bat. They get gloves and pine and resin as thick as hell. They don't even know how to hold the grain of the bat so that they don't break it. During my career, I wore out two ham bones on my bats. I'd rub a bat up and down on a bone to get it hot and slick. The exercise is good for your wrists, too."

An outfielder stepped in. "You're a little slow with your top hands," Appling said. "Hey! When he gets ready to throw, cock your wrists and go from there. Don't go one way with your hands and another with your feet, like a rubber band." In another aside, Appling muttered, "Everybody tries to hit it out in batting practice instead of laying the bat on the ball. People take too big a loop. Somebody'll throw them a breaking ball and they'll fall all over themselves. Or they'll throw a fastball right by them."

A second baseman went for a high pitch. "I'm going to have to build you a soapbox to get those," Appling said. The youngster laughed. "Th'ow the top hand!" Appling called to another player. "You're hitting with your front hand all the way.

"You'd think I'd get sick of saying the same things every day, but you can't give up on them. Some you pat on the back, some you kick on the butt. You have to be patient and tactful. I love working with these kids. You try to tell a major-leaguer something"—he turned his head to the side, mimicking—"and they don't pay no attention. In the minors you ask them to come out at three in the afternoon and they're here at 10 in the morning, they're so anxious."

Appling sticks to fundamentals with Class A players. "He's taught me to hold my hands back, rotate the left shoulder down and get the bat out in front when I swing," says Outfielder Johnny Hatcher, age 19, pretty much covering the gamut. Appling gets considerably more technical with higher-level players. Atlanta Second Baseman Glenn Hubbard, whom Appling considers the most valuable player on the team, says of his tutoring at Savannah, "Luke's probably the single most important influence on my hitting. I came to Double A ball and couldn't hit to right. He showed me." Appling has a variety of ways to teach hitting to the opposite field, but none as ingenious as a method he proposed to Danny Litwhiler, the recently retired coach at Michigan State, who's known for his own innovations. "He got me up facing a hotel pillar," says Litwhiler, an outfielder and third baseman for the Phillies, Cardinals, Braves and Reds. "He said, 'Assume you have a bat. Get a foot away from the pillar and swing.'

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